Since her first mayoral campaign in 2017, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has outlined an ambitious agenda that, if fulfilled, will leave its mark on both the urban and social landscape of the city. A fervent environmentalist before it was cool, Plante began her political career as the city councillor for Sainte-Marie. With bold promises, she earned the leadership of her party, Projet Montréal, and became the first female mayor of the city.

The challenge, Plante admits, is getting Montrealers on her side when it comes to structural change and perhaps inconvenient environmental initiatives.

Indeed, public opinion hasn't always been her ally. Residents reacted poorly, for instance, to a pilot project that closed part of Chemin Camillien-Houde to cars, blocking most vehicular traffic across Mount Royal.

Plante has committed to seeking a second term as mayor. She and her administration have until fall 2021 to convince the electorate that their party, Projet Montréal, has earned its trust.

MTL Blog sat down with Mayor Plante to discuss some of the most pressing issues on Montrealers' minds, covering topics from her promise for a new pink metro line to the controversial Bill 21.

She also gave us some insight into her own feelings about her role and plans for the future.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Autorité régionale de transport métropolitain (ARTM) removed the language of the Pink Line from its Programme des Immobilisations. The new metro line was one of your campaign promises when you were running for mayor.

Still is.

How do you feel about the removal of the language?

I'm not worried at all. First of all, one piece of the Pink Line is already happening. The southwest parts from downtown to Lachine are already secured with the government, which is fantastic.

Now there's the other piece, starting in Montréal-Nord going downtown.

Though it doesn't have the name tag or the colour tag attached, to me it is still the same project. I'm not attached to the colour, to be honest.

I'm not even attached to the technology. I want a solution because the orange line is super crowded. For me, there are no changes. It's still a project for the ARTM.

It's almost like the Relief Line in Toronto, where they had to create a whole new line following the existing one because it was so crowded.

I see a similarity with the Relief Line, but I think in people's hearts it's always going to be the Pink Line.

The apartment-hunting season is fast approaching. Earlier this month you said that Montreal is at a critical moment in terms of housing. The lack of affordable housing is a concern, and many people believe that more development invites more gentrification.

How does your administration plan to protect people from, perhaps, landlords who have bad intentions? And how do we resist gentrification while encouraging development?

It's a very important question and I think about that all the time. When I think about Toronto or Vancouver, there's pretty much only one kind of person that can afford to stay downtown.

When we talk about housing, it's complex, because there are sources of revenue that come from the federal and the provincial [levels].

If we want to be more resilient and make sure that we can keep Montreal affordable, there has to be a toolbox. And in this toolbox, there have to be [ways] to better manage the land. We did launch a bylaw that's coming up really soon, which we call the "20/20/20."

For any kind of development, the promoters will be forced to [reserve] 20% for affordable, 20% for social, and 20% for families — three-bedroom apartments.

We could talk about Airbnb and location platforms that really are hurting Montreal, as well. I take this very seriously.

This 20/20/20 bylaw will apply to all new developments in the city, not only downtown? 

It will be everywhere. It's just that the rules are different based on what the development is. Because, of course, developers want to come downtown versus Rivière-des-Prairies and Pierrefonds-Roxboro. Starting a new building with only six doors, for example, we're not going to ask [for] 20% social [housing]. 

We're playing with all kinds of criteria, but ultimately it's really to make sure that when people have the privilege to develop here, that there's this consciousness of what needs to be done in order to keep a mixed city.

Another topic that I feel is very important in Montreal is the issue of language. Many people feel the city is anglicizing and in fact, you were heavily criticized in 2018 when you gave a speech on foreign investment exclusively in English. The balance between French and English in Montreal is always in conversation.

Yes.

So, how do you attract international businesses and open up the city to different global partners while promoting and protecting the French language and maintaining Montreal's bilingual spirit?

When you become mayor, you rapidly find out that the subject of language is highly sensitive. I understand why. It's connected to our heart and our culture.

What I'm always trying to do is to find the right balance. I'm so proud to be the mayor of the only Francophone metropolis in North America. I want to promote the French language. I want people to learn it.

We're asking the Government of Quebec to gives us the resources to help people to learn the language. Because sometimes when you arrive here, you need to find a job [and take] care of your kids. And it's not initially easy to learn the language. But if you have the resources, you will learn it.

And at the same time, I do value other languages. I'm lucky enough to speak English and Spanish. [Languages] help you to see the world.

This is why Montreal's so special. People arrive from different countries, speaking different languages, bringing their culture. I think we need to celebrate that, and at the same time say how much French is great.

What kind of initiatives or programs would you like to see put in place to help promote the French language?

Right. Because there's the intention, but then what are the actions? This is definitely something that is out of the municipal power. I don't have the financial resources to [institute] some classes.

The conversation that I'm having with the Government of Quebec is to say, "If we believe in integration, if we love our language so much — and we do love it —, we need to make it accessible, we need to make it fun, we need to make it easier."

I think there have to be more team efforts like this, and for me here, the City of Montreal has to always put French first, and I think it's important.

Even in what happened with me doing a speech [in English], although I was disappointed in the reaction, I said, “Okay, I'm sorry. It's okay to speak English, but I'm going to give French the place that it deserves, as well.” It's all about balance.

I want to move the conversation now to the construction industry because it's no secret Montreal is almost constantly under construction.

Do you think the city would perhaps benefit from working with contractors from outside the province of Quebec, or even outside of the country of Canada to better and more efficiently complete very large scale projects?

In Montreal, we are quite limited in our capacity [to look] outside of the rules because when you talk about doing some construction or taking care of our streets, there's a lot of regulation.

Those laws are there to protect, I would say, the market — making sure Montreal uses its money as it's best.

It's true that I don't have that much flexibility. It's not something within my power to say, “Hey, how about we go somewhere else?” 

What do you think is it about Montreal's construction regulations that, in the past, have made them so prone to corruption?

Here in Montreal, we have such an awful episode in our history where corruption was, I wouldn't say everywhere, but really affected the image of Montreal and how we as Montrealers see our city, the city workers, the projects we put together.

One thing I can say for sure is that we have learned from that. For me, it's about adding efficient firewalls because you don't want to fall into the other trap where nothing happens because there are too many firewalls.

We always have to be so vigilant because corruption always seems to find its way through blind spots.

Again, it's a balance because we want to make sure that we don't waste taxpayers' money and that people are not using it for other reasons. At the same time, we do want to get a bit of flexibility and play outside the box.

You mentioned this image that has come out from the former corruption scandals. Montreal mayors also have this image.

You've remarkably been scandal-free — high five, honestly!

Yes!

One of my main questions would be, do contractors still put pressure on City Hall? Do you still feel that pressure? How do you personally withstand this pressure?

Well, when I was running for mayor, one of the things I said was that I don't owe anything to anyone — and it's true.

I'm not here with baggage. I'm just Valérie doing her job.

Since I became mayor, I really want to make sure [that] I also have very high standards in terms of, who do I meet? Where do I meet them? If I go somewhere, who's around?

I really try to avoid any situation where there could be some conversation or talks. I think the media as a whole is pretty aware of that. It's a good thing.

In the past, you received online threats for your response to Bill 21. Now that Bill 21 is in effect, has your position on it changed in any way?

Well, I do have the same position where, for me, it was not necessary to have a law at all, and I've always been really worried about the impact on people here in Montreal [...] but especially on women because often laws affect men and women differently.

Bill 21 is one such example. That being said, I've also decided to respect the authority of the Government of Quebec. It is within its power.

For now, I feel like my role since it passed is to take even more seriously, and spend more time being this voice in favour of, inclusion, openness, and curiosity. It's also my responsibility to remind everyone, when I travel and when I'm here, that Montreal is a land for everyone who's here, and that people who choose Montreal as their home are welcome, and that we want to work together because, again, Montreal is a safe place, is a cool place, and it's a very dynamic one.

Would you argue that Bill 21 is not too good for Quebec as a whole?

It's hard for me to answer that question for very obvious reasons. It just happened, it was last year. I guess, maybe in a few years, once we collect data, it's going to be interesting to see.

Once we see the results.

Exactly, exactly. One of the things that is clear for me is that here in Quebec, we're going into a labour shortage.

And so I think it's important for me to find solutions so more people decide to work here, to create their life, to have a family, and that is something that I think might be connected.

Indeed, I think there could be a connection where [Bill 21] is not going to help that situation, but we shall see.

Is there something you want to say to reassure public servants who do wear visible religious symbols that they are welcome and that Quebec is a place for them?

Of course, I want to tell them that it's a great city to be part of, and at the same time [I understand] that for some people, wearing their religious sign or not to wear it may not be an option. I do have to understand that reality [while] understanding that we're within the Quebec legislation.

What I want to tell people here and outside is that Montreal is a city of inclusion and we are really proud of that. We've been able to have such a great cohesion between people [of] different faiths, religious spaces, skin colour, languages, backgrounds — and I want it to stay that way.

We all have to be vigilant and have this responsibility in mind to make Montreal a welcoming place. Always.

You mentioned before this issue of women and how they're affected differently. Much of the criticism that's directed at you online and in other forums is gendered and sometimes very sexist.

What do you have to say to people that criticize you simply for being a woman? Is there something you want to tell them?

Well, definitely I'm not going to stop doing what I'm doing because of their comments, especially when they're behind their computer or hiding. I don't think these people would be ready to tell me these things to my face.

I think they're cowards. That's my take.

I'm actually so proud to be the first woman mayor of Montreal. Though sometimes it's difficult — these comments, for instance, or sometimes, when I feel there's a double standard, and it's not always easy to identify, but I feel it.

Sometimes when I'm a bit discouraged, I think about all the kids that I meet in schools. I try to go and see them. I see all the little girls and women that stop me in the streets saying, “Thank you for being the mayor.”

I know it's important. Symbols are important because people need to self identify with other people, and I feel like it's a big responsibility.

Sometimes it can be heavy on my shoulders, but I'm so proud of that, and I don't want to disappoint anyone. I want them to be proud of me.

I mean, really, you're one of the only female leaders in the whole country.

Yeah, pretty much.

That pressure must be very intense, and I'm sure you have a support system around you.

Yes.

But who has been your most surprising ally?

Well, so far, the great allies I've had are the mayors of other big cities in Canada. They've been really, really helpful.

[And] every time I meet with a woman from the business world here in Montreal, they're all behind me in a way that is so great.

I feel like it's about how we change the world, and I know these women. They've been through a lot of challenges, just like me. So I think there's this special connection.

Even though we may not agree on everything, I feel like they're behind me saying, “We need to give her at least the tools so she can succeed.”

In your administration at City Hall, how do you fight for and champion more diversity and more inclusion?

It's a huge task because, again, there are words, but then there has to be action. Even when you put actions in place, sometimes it takes a while.

We've been reviewing all the procedures of hiring, working with the unions — because sometimes, there might be a lot of people coming from diverse backgrounds entering the city, but for some reason, they're not moving higher.

So we need to think about that. SPVM, same thing. We've been having these conversations.

We're talking to [the Montreal Police] often about that because they know that for me, it's a priority. Making sure that police officers are more representative of Montrealers, but also, how do we review and put things in place to minimize any type of social and racial profiling?

We're talking about organizational mentalities, and everybody needs to look at their own bias, as well. There's a lot of work to be done, but to be honest, I feel like it's moving. But we've got to keep the focus on that subject.

Are there any big plans on that subject in 2020?

Of course, because last year, we were the first administration to say, “Okay, we need to look at the data that the SPVM has, but we need to have external researchers.”

What came out of [the racial profiling report] was quite shocking. Now, we need to put the actions together through training, also through making an organizational shift, working with the people there.

[We're working on this] even within my own political staff. I don't think there have been as many women in the political cabinet as since I took office.

I'm always pushing for more diversity, for having the right people in the right place, but I want to lead by example. It takes time because ultimately you don't want to tokenize anyone.

You've got to do it the right way.

I guess my final question would be, what's next for you? Hypothetically, you could be mayor forever, but —

I'm not sure my family would go with the forever thing!

But would there be any chance we'd see you on, perhaps, a provincial or a federal election ballot?

It's hard to tell! Who knows? But to be honest, I love the municipal level because it's very direct. I find solutions, I'm close to people, which is so important to me.

I love meeting with people and finding out what they need, and how I can find concrete solutions. 

One thing I can say for sure is that I will be there for the next election. That's for sure because we're changing the organization here, the City of Montreal, and everything I have in mind for climate change cannot wait.

To be honest, I truly feel that if we want to diminish our emissions, we need to be bold. We need to be audacious.

I really think that only my party, to be honest, can do that. We're ready to do this. Now, the challenge will be to bring the population with us. How do we create this social contract?

We need to raise awareness and mobilize people around those difficult decisions we need to take, but we have to take them.

I do think that real change and concrete change, especially about climate change, comes from the cities.

We know what happens when there's flooding. We know what happens when there is a heatwave, and we don't want to see our population go through this.

Municipalities are in the best place to make a connection between fighting climate change and social equity because you don't want to leave anyone behind.

Is there something you'd want to say to our viewers, to Montrealers? Some parting words from Mayor Valérie Plante.

One thing I know is that Montrealers love their city, and it makes me so proud to be the mayor of this inclusive and dynamic place. Hopefully, we'll get the chance to talk more another time.

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